NOTE: Early post this week as I'll be traveling for the next few days. Next post will be Monday, April 7th.
The much hailed success of the “Surge” of American forces in
The surge provided impressive initial results. Why? While many cite the shiny new & improved counterinsurgency approach implemented by Gen. Petraeus, which did manage to seize upon a period where Shi’a groups were temporarily electing cease fire over insurrection for reasons discussed below, there is a potentially more significant trend behind the (until recently) reduction in violence. What has often been termed the “Sunni Awakening,” where Sunni insurgents miraculously decided that violence is counter-productive and that they should join with the Americans and fight al-Qa’ida, is probably more accurately understood as the “short-sighted Sunni pay-off.” The Americans, acting both independently and through the Iraqi government, leveraged Sunni tribal leaders, provincial officials, and existing militia leaders by offering them a deal they couldn’t refuse: stop fighting us, put up at least a convincing guise of “fighting al-Qa’ida,” and we’ll pay you huge sums of money, arm you, and give you legitimacy. This worked great, especially considering that the Shi’a militas that had been conducting what was essentially ethnic cleansing against Sunni neighborhoods had either 1) finished successfully, or 2) declared self-imposed cease fires to improve their political position within the Shi’a political block. Absent the ongoing catalyst for tit-for-tat sectarian attacks, the Sunni seized upon a huge opportunity. Seizing upon America’s inability to sacrifice without payoff for more than two to four years (as driven by domestic political cycles), the Sunnis knew that they could use America’s desire for some kind of positive news about Iraq now to arm and prepare themselves for the inevitable conflict with the Shi’a down the road. As long as the sectarian violence remains in the background, the Sunnis will continue to take all the arms and funding they can get, and are happy to temporarily refrain from violence against Americans in the mean time. This is, of course, a generalization, as many Sunni groups, to include al-Qa’ida in
The success of the surge is falling apart now, in part, because Moqtada al-Sadr is seizing a political opportunity presented by the weakened Prime Minister Maliki. Maliki is either greedy or simply short-sighted in his quest to please his imperial overlords, hoping to show that his government was capable of taking charge of its own security just in time for the Petraeus report to the US Congress. Sadr’s Mahdi Army recently extended its self-imposed cease fire, but thanks to Maliki’s misstep can now claim more legitimate self-defense. So Sadr is using this opportunity to “justly” demonstrate his capability to drag
What is Sadr’s plan? I haven’t spoken to the man recently, but my guess is that he plans to demonstrate his ability to destroy the semblance of order recently prevailing in
What does Sadr hope to achieve with this political maneuvering? There are many possibilities, but I think that he wants to keep the central government weak, teetering on the brink of collapse, dependent on him for support, until he can get his plan for Southern Iraq through the assembly: create one “super federation” of southern Shi’a provinces rather than the alternate plan of creating several individual Shi’a federations, each comprising only one or two provinces. This is critical for two reasons: 1) while Sadr relies on
If this strategy is what Sadr has in mind, then it makes sense to me to demonstrate (at least to internal audiences) that he can cause great chaos in the South, but then to quickly call a cease fire and cash in his political capital. It makes sense to me to push this cease fire a few days past Maliki’s Saturday (March 29, 2008) deadline to clarify who is in charge, but probably not to wait far into April before ending the uprising.
All of which brings me to why the surge was doomed to failure in the first place. While Petraeus’s updated counterinsurgency strategy was elegant and interesting, it never stood a chance because it does not address (or comprehend) the foundational problem of mutually exclusive overlap. I’ve been writing about this since immediately after I returned home from the Persian Gulf in 2004 as it creates the post-colonial terrain upon which everything else in
The Petraeus surge worked, either through happenstance or devious planning, by scheduling simultaneously the period when the Sunni factions realized they should pause and take advantage of an American-provided opportunity to re-arm for this coming conflict, and the time when the Shi’a factions realized they should pause to consolidate for the same. The surge is now disintegrating because the value to both sides of further “strategic pause” is winding down. Moqtada al-Sadr’s maneuvering in the South, combined with a gradual increase in Sunni violence around
Further Reading: See John Robb's post on Moqtada al-Sadr's strategy in Iraq HERE. Also see my suggestion for solving Iraq's problem with mutually exclusive overlap (yes, gardening *is* the solution...)